22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Sunday, October 20.2013, Year C
Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the way who invites us to pray always and not lose heart, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I think about what it means to pray always and not lose heart I think of a modern day example of a woman named Leymah Gbowee. Leymah is an African woman from Liberia. From the years of 1989-1996, and then again in 1999-2003, Liberia suffered a grueling and horrendous civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Most of the casualties of this war were women and children. When the people of Liberia woke up each morning they did not know whether they would live or die.
In a television interview Leymah said, “We lived in fear. It was always like you go to bed and pray that you have something different the next day…that the shooting will stop…the killing will stop…the hunger will stop…say, God, please. I had a dream, a crazy dream that someone was actually telling me to get the women together to pray for peace (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/women-war-and-peace/full-episodes/pray-the-devil-back-to-hell/).”
The people had been praying for peace in their homes, churches, and mosques and with Leymah’s brave leadership, Christian and Muslim women courageously took their prayer to the streets. Every day they would go and protest the war by dressing in white t-shirts (white for the color of peace) and carrying signs that read, “We want peace now!” They sat all day long day after day in front of the presidential palace. In 2003, finally, with the women barricading the door until peace was declared, a treaty was signed and the civil war ended.
I cannot even fathom the courage it took for these women to do what they did in the face of guns and constant threat to their lives. Only the power of prayer and the power of God in their lives could sustain them through such insurmountable odds. The book that tells this story is called, “Mighty Be Our Powers,”and the movie documentary is called, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” And that is just what they did…they prayed the devil back to hell.
The women had every reason to lose heart, but they did not. They trusted in a God who was more powerful than guns, than corrupt rulers, and greed. Their life itself could be taken, but they could not take away their faith and their ability to pray.
The widow in our Gospel reading Jesus speaks of has similar characteristics of Leymah. Day after day the woman goes into the courtroom to demand justice from an unjust judge who wants nothing to do with her. It’s like facing a judge you know will cut you no slack or care about your well-being. The woman too has no reason to believe she could win, and yet she persists in her cause.
This story is actually meant to be a bit comical. The unjust judge says to himself: “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” An alternative translation can read, “So she may not finally come and slap me in the face.” I picture an enraged woman taking a good swing at the guy’s head with her large purse. Because she persists and does not lose heart, like Leymah, the judge grants what she needs even if it is out of shear annoyance.
If this is where the story ended we could wrap it up and put a bow and it and feel satisfied, but it is not where it ends. The story continues with Jesus saying, “Even the sleazy, unjust judge, who could care less about God or people, grants justice. Then how much more will God, who is not like the unjust judge, give what is needed to those who cry out day and night in prayer?”
The difficulty I find with what Jesus is saying is that I know plenty of faithful people, people who have prayed for years and years for things who have not received what they have asked for. People who pray for an end to their suffering from mental illness, or from a disease or chronic pain, for a family member to overcome addiction, for an end to war, to not have their child die from starvation, to not lose their home or their job, to do the right thing. I know many of us here pray and pray and pray and prayers seemingly go unanswered and unheard.
When this may be our experience of prayer, I wonder how we hear Jesus’ words when he says, “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice.” Now, quickly as it is used here, doesn’t necessarily mean, “right now.” Like if I pray for something it will happen tomorrow. What it means is that God will answer prayer surprisingly or suddenly. I know of a woman who prayed for 25 years that her husband would stop drinking, then suddenly, one day he did. What Jesus is saying to us is, “Even if you have to pray 25 years…even a life time, keep praying and do not lose heart.
This past week I asked many people, especially people in this congregation, how they thought about and practiced prayer. I received all kinds of different answers and this is a good thing. Yes, we have formal prayers that help us out, like the Lord’s Prayer, where we are to ask for certain things: For thy will to be done, for God’s kingdom to come on earth, for God to give us and those who hunger daily bread, for forgiveness, and to be protected from evil. Yet, each person needs to find their own way and comfort level of talking to God. That is essentially what prayer is…a conversation with God.
Prayer can be as little as thinking about a person in your life, saying their name, and lifting them up to God’s care. It can be as simple as author, Anne Lamott’s prayer: help me, help me, help me…thank you, thank you, thank you. It can be as much as waking up every day and spending an hour and a ½ reading Scripture, meditating, and praying. It can even be demanding like the wrestling match we heard about in our first reading between Jacob and God. The experience of prayer is so different for everyone, but people who pray understand its importance because it does something for us.
I have a friend of a friend who was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer a few years ago. After he was diagnosed he decided to travel to Lourdes, France. Lourdes is a place where many people go to pray and worship. Miracles are said to have happened in that place and the man traveled there to pray and receive healing from his cancer. He prayed and prayed and prayed for an end to his cancer. When he arrived back in the United States my friend asked him whether or not he was healed. He said, “I am not healed from cancer, but through prayer I have been changed and have received healing in a way I did not expect. Now I have peace that whatever happens to me I will be all right. He died one and a ½ years later from cancer and he faced death with the assurance of the life God promised him on the other side of death…resurrection of the body and eternal life.
We can hear this story and wonder: Was God not with him; did God not hear him since he died of cancer anyway? Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers like we hope or think God should. Even Jesus cries out in prayer from the cross, receives no answer, and then he dies. Was God not with him; did God not hear even Jesus?
If the story ended here we would have cause to doubt, but it doesn’t. It is true that God did not spare Christ from death; but God did something even greater…God raised Jesus from the dead, which was a much better plan in the first place. The resurrection of Jesus and the promise of life after death is how we know that even if our prayers seemly never get answered in this life, they will be answered in the next.
This might not be much comfort in the present moment, but prayer isn’t just about getting what one wants, or something we do before we eat. Prayer is the language of faith. It is the life-breath of who we are as we are in relationship with our Creator. It is trusting in a God who loves you. We pray because it is good for us, because Jesus asks us to, because it helps us to persevere in hard times, and because it shapes and forms us into who God is calling us to be. If there are some days I feel that I am unable to pray, I ask someone else to pray for me and with me.
Pastor and theologian Fred Craddock says this about prayer:
All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry…In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”
There are all kinds of incredible stories, like the one of women of Liberia, that bear witness to the power of prayer. Prayer is not some wimpy thing we do. It is like the title of Leymah’s book, “Might be our powers!” May God bless you in your life of prayer, and our prayer life together. When Jesus comes again, I do believe he will find faith on earth.